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he Currents 

Carl Malamud 


Let the venal and the self-seeking and the 

tawdry and the tainted fear to enter your 


Lyndon B. Johnson 

The Currents Of Our Time 

Address to the Government 2,0 Summit 
Washington, D.C., September 7, 2010 

CC-Zero, No Rights Reserved. 1 .0/ 

Cover photo of "Air Mail" by Harris & Ewing, circa 1918 
From Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

The Currents Of Our Time 

Carl Malamud 

The Currents Of Our Time 

Our verse for the day is from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on 
the State of Virginia. He said: 

In matters of style, swim with the current; In matters of 
principle, stand like a rock. 

I'd like to talk with you today about the operation of our 
federal government, about how if our government is to do 
the jobs with which we have entrusted it — if government is 
to ensure that the air we breathe and the water we drink are 
safe, or that every child is to be given a chance to flourish 
— if we are to accomplish these goals, the machinery of our 
government must be made to work properly. 

At the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin stated 
his belief that public servants should not be paid a salary, 
for in paying the civil service, our government would not 
be made of "the wise and the moderate . . . the men fittest 
for the trust" but instead by "the bold and the violent, the 
men of strong passions ... in their selfish pursuits." 

Salaries were a slippery slope that would invariably 
lead to capture and corruption. Ben lost the salary fight 
and federal employees were paid, but his worries about 
the corrupting influence of private gain on public 
operations came true. 

In 1828, when General Jackson stormed the gates and 
took the White House, public service became a service of 
spoils for the victor, radical change in the workforce with 
every election. Cabinet secretaries and presidents spent 
their days and nights meeting with a river of job seekers, 
and their congressional patrons. 

With the Civil War, then reconstruction, government 
grew. The railroads caused a blizzard of paper for the 

Carl Malamud 

General Land Office. The Pension Office filled with appeals 
from the Grand Army of the Republic. Government 
workers were always new on the job and often not on the 
job, and they became famous for their red tape. 

Meanwhile, there were rumblings of reform. At first, in 
1868, this was a lone voice in Congress, Thomas Jenckes of 
Rhode Island, a patent lawyer who had experienced 
firsthand the ineptness of the bureaucracy. 

Over the years, the clarion calls for reform sounded 
ever-louder, but the system did not change. Then, the 
unthinkable happened. President James Garfield was shot, 
just four months after taking office, by a disgruntled office 
seeker. The nation watched in horror as he lay in agony for 
1 1 weeks dying. 

In tribute to the fallen President — and faced with a tidal 
wave of public outrage — Congress passed the Civil 
Service Act of 1883. 

A Civil Service Commission of 3 members — including a 
young Teddy Roosevelt — conducted a government-wide 
review, turning the federal workforce into a merit-based 
system, requiring open competitive examinations as the 
basis for employment. 

The Civil Service Act was a reformation in the 
machinery of government, and that change in turn made 
possible the great progressive era that began with the turn 
of the century. When government began to work properly, 
only then could we face the brazen challenges of the 
trusts, the shocking labor conditions, the deteriorating 
food supply. 

The Currents Of Our Time 

— 2— 
Today, while we are faced with wars and terrorism, with a 
brutal economic climate and a renegade financial industry, 
with a global environmental crisis, the need for our 
government to function properly is all the more pressing. 

Today, we have our own reform, an open government 
movement. There have been some notable successes. The 
open government directive has led to agency -wide plans 
coordinated by Beth Noveck in the White House, CIO Vivek 
Kundra has started reviews of major IT projects. We're 
going to hear from both of them at this conference, and it is 
worth listening closely to what they say. But we need more. 

Our federal government spends $81.9 billion a year on 
Information Technology. Much of that is wasted effort. We 
build systems so badly, it is crippling the infrastructure of 

Let me give you an example of an agency I'm familiar 
with, the National Archives and Records Administration. Let 
me start by saying I really like this agency. 

When NARA redid the Federal Register, they didn't stop 
with bulk XML data, they released the entire UI as open 
source — and it is based on the work of 3 volunteers at 
GovPulse.US, who whipped this up because they wanted 
something for the Apps for America contest. I mean, how 
cool is that? This is the best opengov story I've seen in a 

I also worked closely with the new Archivist, David 
Ferriero, and his staff, and they've been totally supportive 
of the FedFlix program, which now has 3,900 government 

Carl Malamud 

videos on-line. FedFlix has tallied more views than all 13 of 
the Smithsonian Institution channels combined. 

Last December, Congress asked me to testify about the 
Electronic Records Archives system NARA has been trying 
to build for a decade. 

ERA is meant to hold in perpetuity the archived 
electronic records of the federal government, and this is 
surely the main challenge NARA faces for the future, it is 
the very core of their mission. 

We've spent over $250 million dollars so far on ERA, the 
lifetime cost is supposedly $500 million, and I'd bet the 
render farm that this boondoggle comes in at a cool 

The Inspector General testified he had no idea what the 
system did or how much it costs. GAO issued reports 
saying they couldn't figure it out either. 

Best as I can tell our $250 million bought a 100-terabyte 
system and a couple small servers to do the ingest. 

Keep in mind this is an archiving system. Turns out 
there is no backup or offsite replication in the current 

There's no public access to speak of built into the ERA 
design. As far as the Internet is concerned, the system is 
basically write-only memory. 

For $250 million, we also got a bunch of T3 lines they 
can't get to work. So, when the ingest center gets their 
records from the 4 test agencies, they periodically unrack 
the ingest server, throw it in a van with a rent-a-cop and 
drive to Greenbelt, where Lockheed Martin does their 
"post-ingest processing," and then they drive to West 

The Currents Of Our Time 

Virginia and load up ERA, then back to the ingest facility. 
They measure throughput in bits per gallon. 

This system is all custom, proprietary code, so a state 
archive can't download the package and run it themselves. 

This is so broken that to negotiate the 3,000 page 
contract, NARA had to hire an outside law firm. 

This is so broken that Lockheed Martin went and got 
itself 1 9 patents on work the government paid for, and the 
government probably doesn't have rights to those patents. 

These are just a few highlights of ERA. I could go on. 
The good news is the new Archivist gets it, and Vivek 
Kundra put the project on his watch list. 

I'd urge you to spend a bit of time on Vivek's IT 
dashboard and you'll see that NARA is not an anomaly, it is 
a reflection of best current practices. This is how it is done 
in Washington today. 

There's the FBI's Sentinel system, a $451 million fiasco 
that quite simply didn't work, and now the FBI is saying it 
might cost an additional billion. Meanwhile, the FBI 
remains hobbled. 

There's the FAA's NextGen system which 
Transportation's IG has said "puts billions of taxpayer 
dollars at risk." While NextGen treads water in an ever- 
mounting sea of money, our air traffic control system 
remains distinctly last-gen. 

There's Homeland Security with $6.5 billion in 2010 IT 
spending, Commerce with $6.6 billion, the list goes on. 

And this isn't all about money, this is about clue, about 

Carl Malamud 

Take the IRS. They make nonprofit tax returns available 
only on DVDs. They don't scan the tax returns into PDF 
files, they put each page in a separate TIFF file, so each 
month you get a dozen DVDs with a million TIFF files. 

Here's the kicker. If you look in these nonprofit returns, 
you'll see a whole boatload of Social Security numbers of 
schoolchildren. A CIO at Treasury told me he thinks 
they're prohibited by law from redacting those numbers as 
that would be altering a government document. 

The Currents Of Our Time 

— 3— 
What does it take to fix something this broken? 

For inspiration, look to the progressive era, a time that 
began with the reigning in of the railroads and continued 
with Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting, with Louis Brandeis, 
the people's lawyer, reforming a life insurance system that 
was no less than "legalized robbery." 

This was when basic protections for worker safety 
came into place, when child labor was regarded as 
immoral, and then illegal, when public safety codes 
became law. 

It was a time when government became a platform to 
create new industries like aviation, but also a time to 
reform industries that had run amok, such as food and 

Take aviation. After World War I, there was no industry, 
just gypsy fliers and barnstormers. Then, businesses 
started to use the air. 

First out of the gate was skywriting, then aerial 
photography, but the first killer app was the U.S. 
Department of Agriculture, which invented the profession 
of crop dusting. 

Then — though there was no economic justification for it 
— the Post Office created an airmail service. They flew 
their own planes, and then they stopped flying and said 
they would contract with commercial carriers — which 
didn't exist yet. 

Henry Ford, Marshall Field, Phillip K. Wrigley all started 
to invest in aviation. A new Aviation Bureau began plotting 
airways, installing light beacons, licensing pilots. Soon 

Carl Malamud 

people joined the mail on the planes and civil aviation 
bloomed. Government had created a new platform. 

Another example of fundamental change is ensuring 
the safety of food and drugs. By the late nineteenth 
century, the American food supply was the worst in the 
world's history, dominated by unscrupulous trusts and fly- 
by-night factories. 

Abraham Lincoln saw this coming when he said 
"Corporations have been enthroned . . . An era of 
corruption in high places will follow." He was right. 

The field of medicine was dominated by patent 
medicines, secret brews with dubious claims, and 
ingredients such as opium and mercury. 

These toadstool millionaires were the biggest 
advertisers in newspapers, ensuring there would be no 
articles critical of their practices in the mainstream media. 

In 1883, Harvey Wiley became the Agriculture 
Department's chief chemist. He and his small staff started 
by exposing widespread cheating in the honey industry, 
where many foisted off low-grade glucose with ground up 
dead bees for color. 

Dr. Wiley and his agricultural chemists kept 
investigating, exposing the use of formaldehyde and borax 
as preservatives, and the shocking lack of nutrition in swill 

In this time, Congress would have nothing of reform. 
Corporations were their partners, citizens had no standing. 

This was capture, "mere selfish scramble for plunder." 

Then Harvey Wiley was joined by a small group of 
writers who picked up their muck-rakes. When Upton 

The Currents Of Our Time 

Sinclair came out with the Jungle, and the Ladies Home 
Journal exposed the patent medicines in lurid detail, the 
public reached a tipping point. 

It was the muckrakers and the bureaucrats who laid the 
groundwork that gave Teddy Roosevelt a plan of action, a 
plan that became the Food and Drug Act of 1906. 

Leadership starts at the bottom, small groups can turn 
many small facts into one big truth. Dr. Wiley prepared for 
20 years until his time came to create the FDA and we 
began an ongoing commitment to make sure our foods will 
be edible and our medicines will not kill. 

Carl Malamud 

For those of us here in this room, we who work at the 
intersection of technology and government, how should we 
define the change that we seek? There are three steps we 
can take if we are serious about government as platform, 
and the first is to finish the opengov revolution. 

There is so much left to do. We need bulk data 
standards and we need to enforce them. We also need 
much more data. 

There is no excuse for the IRS to be selling dirty DVDs. 
There is no excuse for the Patent Office not to have all their 
data on their own Internet server as part of their 
constitutionally mandated mission to promote the progress 
of science. 

We need to update our FOIA laws and give them 
Internet-age teeth. When we release something on FOIA, it 
should be published, not just go to the requester. 

Finishing the opengov revolution is just step one. Our 
government is the caretaker for vast stores of information 
in our national libraries, archives, research laboratories, 
and museums. These stores lie fallow today, but they could 
become a platform that provides access to knowledge for 

Prior efforts at digitization have been halfhearted. We 
should be spending a minimum of $250 million per year 
for a decade on a national scanning initiative. 

If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can launch 
the Library of Congress into cyberspace. 

The Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Library of 
Congress, the National Library of Medicine, the 

The Currents Of Our Time 

Government Printing Office must all work together to 
develop a strategy compelling enough to make Congress, 
the foundations, and the public all clamor to help them 
create this new platform. 

If a national scanning initiative is to have teeth, we also 
need to make clear that works of the federal government 
have no copyright. The Smithsonian Institution still asserts 
copyright over their holdings. 

Taxpayers give the Smithsonian $750 million per year 
and the best location on the planet, for which we deserve 
no less than that our nation's attic be open for all to use. 

After finishing opengov and starting to scan, the third 
thing we need is an open systems revolution. We must 
reboot how we build computer systems. This has to be an 
all-hands-on-deck open-systems moment, the kind of thing 
we saw with the Civil Service Commission. 

All hands on deck is also how we reversed the capture 
of the FDA by Big Pharma in the 1950s, when drugs were 
getting approved by default. There was great harm in 
these drug cocktails, and it all blew up with the discovery 
of the grotesque effects of Thalidomide on babies. 

In 1962, the great Estes Kefauver seized the moment 
and got his landmark amendments passed. He flipped the 
bit, so drugs had to be proved safe instead of proved 
unsafe. But there was an installed base problem. There 
were over 4,000 drugs already on the market. 

The FDA commissioner borrowed 10 young doctors 
from the Surgeon General, he got the National Academies 
to provide a home, and he drafted 180 of the best doctors 

Carl Malamud 

and scientists in the country, and they reviewed every one 
of those drugs. 

Three years later, when the Great Drug Review was 
done, seven percent of the pharmacopeia was pulled, and 
a full 50 percent of the drugs were relabeled with vastly 
reduced claims and many more warnings. 

Stemming today's IT torrent needs the same approach, 
a Computer Commission with the kind of authority the 
Civil Service Commission had to conduct agency-by- 
agency reviews and help us reboot .gov, flipping the bit 
from a reliance on over-designed custom systems to one 
based on open-source building blocks, judicious use of 
commercial off-the-shelf-components, and much tighter 
control of the beltway bandits. 

The President should call in the federal tech staff and 
tell them what Lyndon Johnson told the FDA regulators 
when he got in their face and said "let the venal and the 
self-seeking and the tawdry and the tainted fear to enter 
your building." 

The Currents Of Our Time 

— 5— 
Washington is in a state of gridlock, and capture by special 
interests is old news. One can call this a crisis of 
leadership, and there are certainly real issues of 
leadership our government must face. 

But we should never forget that leadership only happens 
when we as a community put a real solution on the table, a 
better way of doing things that gives our leaders the 
courage to work on things that matter, to become the risk- 
takers and doers, to make the change that we all seek. 

Woodrow Wilson said that "the great government we 
loved has too often been made use of for private and 
selfish purposes, and those who used it had forgotten the 
people." Wilson called on us to build a government "where 
justice and mercy are reconciled and the judge and the 
brother are one." 

We can build that better government, we can plow new 
fields from the vast wasteland of contracts that lie fallow 
inside this beltway. 

Harvey Wiley toiled for decades until his time came, he 
anchored to the deepest rock of principle and practiced his 
craft, until he was able to swim with the currents of his time. 
A few dedicated people working on things that matter can 
move something even so massive as the ship of state. 

If we believe we can make government more efficient, 
more effective, more just, we must practice our craft until 
we can swim with the currents of our time, for if we remain 
anchored to the deepest rock of principle, then we will see 
"justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an 
ever flowing stream." 

Carl Malamud 

The Currents Of Our Time 
Table of Agencies Cited 

/ Civil Service Commission 

/ Department of Commerce 

/ Department of Defense 

/ Department of Homeland Security 

/ Department of the Interior 

/ Department of the Treasury 

/ Executive Office of the President 

/ Federal Aviation Administration 

/ Federal Bureau of Investigation 

/ Federal Communications Commission 

/ Federal Emergency Management Agency 

/ Food and Drug Administration 

/ General Land Office 

/ Government Accountability Office 

/ Government Printing Office 

/ Government Scanning Office 

/ House of Representatives 

/ Internal Revenue Service 

/ Library of Congress 

/ National Academies of Science 

/ National Archives and Records Administration 

/ National Library of Medicine 

/ Patent and Trademark Office 

/ Pension Office 

/ Public Health Service 

/ Smithsonian Institution 

/ United States Postal Service 

Table of Works Consulted 

Cindy Sondik Aron, Ladies and Gentlemen of the Civil 
Service: Middle-Class Workers in Victorian America, 
Oxford University Press (New York: 1987).* 

Louis Auchincloss, Theodore Roosevelt, Times Books 
(New York: 2001). 

Marshall Cushing, The Story of Our Post Office, A.M. 
Thayer & Co. (Boston: 1893).* 

Robert M. Crunden, Ministers of Reform: The 
Progressives' Achievement in American Civilization, 
1889-1920, Basic Books (New York: 1982). 

Benjamin Franklin, Dangers of a Salaried Bureaucracy 
(1787), reprinted in William Jennings Bryan (Editor), The 
World's Famous Orations, Volume 8, Funk and Wagnalls 
Company (New York: 1906).* 

Charles A. Goodrum, The Library of Congress, Praeger 
Library of U.S. Government Departments and Agencies, 
Praeger Publishers (New York: 1974).* 

Philip J. Hilts, Protecting America's Health: The FDA, 
Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation, Alfred A. 
Knopf (New York: 2003). 

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform From Bryan to 
F.D.R., Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 1977). 

Table of Works Consulted 

Ari Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the 
Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865-1883, University of 
Illinois Press (Urbana: 1961).* 

Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, 
Simon & Schuster (New York: 2003). 

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1781, 
1787), reprinted in Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson: Writings, 
Library of America (New York: 1984). 

Arthur Kallet and F.J. Schlink, 100,000,000 Guinea Pigs, 
Grosset & Dunlap (New York: 1933).* 

Morton Keller, The Life Insurance Enterprise, 1885- 
1910: A Study in the Limits of Corporate Power, Belknap 
Press (Cambridge: 1963).* 

Nick A. Komons, Bonfires to Beacons: Federal Civil 
Aviation Policy Under the Air Commerce Act, 1926-1938, 
Smithsonian History of Aviation Series, Smithsonian 
Institution Press (Washington, D.C.: 1989). 

Roger D. Launius and Howard E. McCurdy (Editors), 
Spaceflight and the Myth of Presidential Leadership, 
University of Illinois Press (Urbana: 1997). 

William E. Leuchtenburg, Herbert Hoover, Times Books 
(New York: 2009). 

Donald R. McCoy, The National Archives: America's 
Ministry of Documents, 1934-1968, The University of North 
Carolina Press (Chapel Hill: 1978).* 

Table of Works Consulted 

Walter A. McDougall, ... the Heavens and the Earth: A 
Political History of the Space Age, Basic Books (New York: 

Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall 
of the Progressive Movement in America, 1870-1920, Free 
Press (New York: 2003). 

Angela G. Ray, The Lyceum and Public Culture in the 
Nineteenth Century United States, Michigan State 
University Press (East Lansing: 2005). 

Donald K. Springen, Williams Jennings Bryan: Orator of 
Small-Town America, Great American Orators, Number 1 1 , 
Greenwood Press (New York: 1991).* 

Frank Mann Stewart, The National Civil Service Reform 
League, University of Texas (Austin: 1929).* 

F. Robert van der Linden, Airlines & Air Mail: The Post 
Office and the Birth of the Commercial Aviation Industry, 
University of Kentucky Press (Lexington: 2002). 

Carl Van Doren, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography, 
Bramhall House (New York: 1938). 

Edward C. Walterscheid, To Promote the Progress of 
Useful Arts: American Patent Law and Administration, 
1798-1836, Fred B. Rothman (Littleton: 1998). 

Michael Warner (Editor), American Sermons: The 
Pilgrims to Martin Luther King Jr. , Library of America (New 
York: 1999). 

Table of Works Consulted 

Leonard D. White, A Study in Administrative History, 
Volume l,The Federalists: 1789-1801, Macmillan (New 
York, 1959).* 

Leonard D. White, A Study in Administrative History, 
Volume 2, The Jeffersonians: 1801-1829, Macmillan (New 
York, 1959).* 

Leonard D. White, A Study in Administrative History, 
Volume 3, The Jacksonians: 1829-1861 , Macmillan (New 
York, 1954).* 

Leonard D. White, A Study in Administrative History, 
Volume 4, The Republican Era: 1869-1901, Macmillan (New 
York, 1958).* 

Ted Widmer (Editor), American Speeches: Political 
Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton, Library of 
America (New York: 2006). 

Ted Widmer (Editor), American Speeches: Political 
Oratory from the Revolution to the Civil War, Library of 
America (New York: 2006). 

James Harvey Young, The Toadstool Millionaires: A 
Social History of Patent Medicines in America Before 
Federal Regulation, Princeton University Press (Princeton: 

* — Indicates fallow works no longer readily available.